“Dry Sherry”, my friend who works at the VAG, kindly drove me to see what has been billed as this summer’s blockbuster exhibition. The whole first floor of the gallery is occupied by this show, laid out in chronological historic order starting with Courbet and ending with Ben Nicholson and Mondrian.
The rooms seemed packed to me, but “Dry Sherry” assured that the volume of visitors expected did not materialize. Martha and Elsa had gone a couple of weeks ago, on the evening of the “cheap night” where there were cheek to jowl people squeezed into the spaces, and looking at the displayed works was made difficult by the crowds milling about. Apparently, that evening the lines waiting to be let in stretched the length of several blocks, and they had to wait in line for over an hour before being let in. DS and my visit was fairly comfortable, and we took four hours to go through.
A problem for me was that I couldn’t read the title plates nor the didactic panels unless I got really close to them, and this was made awkward by the stanchions delineating space that prevented closeness to the walls. DS read titles, media and other bits of information out loud to me while I juggled wearing two pairs of glasses in order to discern the surface of the paintings, and the marks of paint handling which is a particular pleasure for me..
DS is a great companion with whom to see an exhibition. She has an extensive art history background and a truly open mind about what constitutes compelling art work. We discussed each painting at length and she had an interesting way of providing opinions and impressions of what she was looking at. We each made a note of which paintings we would like to go home with, to live with and which would provide many years of viewing pleasure. There were some pleasant surprises, such as the Manet portrait of Berthe Morisot painted in an austere tonal pallette of blacks, coloured greys and a rich variety of browns with a most assured, direct and economical manner of execution. It was extremely casual in feel when compared with a Tissot confection that was highly polished; and yet it was the Manet which I loved.
The Renoirs in this collection (Cleveland Museum of Art) seemed vapid, flabby and sugary to me and reinforced my strong aversion to paintings by him. The one Degas portrait exhibited, a sober portrait of one of his Italian aunts, reminded me of why I have revered Degas as painter; yet this painting did not have the polish of the Renoirs. What it did have was a wonderful series of painterly decisions and false starts, a record of a process taken by Degas in realizing this study. I felt like he was talking to me about why the veil of grey halo around one side of the head was necessary to try out, and why the placement of the reds in the composition he decided to place in the apices of an implied triangle in the composition. It was as if his thought processes were being transmitted by the construction, and I feel fortunate in being able to have this privileged experience.
The three Cezannes provided so much satisfaction. The Monets nearby did not fare well in comparison with the Cezannes, to me they seemed to lack an coherence, an overallness that was convincing, and their construction lacked rigour to me. They were paintings that would yield me a lifetime of absorbed contemplation – I loved them!
Van Gogh shared space with a delicious Redon. I am not a lover of floral still lives, yet this Redon gem captivated me with its effervescent and fresh colouration – we stood in front of it in discussion for a long time. Of the three Van Gogh pictures, two were gorgeous landscapes with all the beautiful casually cloisonnist shapes and spaces characteristic of Van Gogh’s mature style and with the brilliant matrix of brush marks with which he guided the eye through and around the composition. And the colour was joyous and celebratory. Van Gogh is one of my painting “gods”, has been ever since I was a young girl and these paintings reminded me why I have held his works in the highest esteem.
There was a restrained and austere Braques Cubist construction that allowed for sustained contemplation that was most satisying. This one, of somber browns and greys, reminded me of the meditative cadence of a fugue. Nearby hung a Cubist Picasso painting of a Pierrot, audacious and dramatic in contrasts of light and dark, pattern and plain, full of an inventive variety of pattern possibilities. While I admired it, it was not a painting I would want to tuck under my arm and abscond with, were I so larcenously inclined. But the Braques – oh, now that might be a painting for which I would risk my reputation as a law-abiding woman!
Of the sculptures, there was a lovely subtle head of a child by Medardo Rosso, which I had seen in reproduction many years ago – it sat there quietly seeming to elude stillness. A number of Rodin studies in bronze, patinated almost to gleaming black, were a treat to see. I like to see the struggle of Rodin to realize form, captured in these sculptures and it is so great to be visually invited to partake of his enormous efforts.
“Dry Sherry” really liked the two Dali variations of St George, one a pen and ink drawing, the other an etching. We agreed that Dali had probably studied Ucello’s “Rout of San Romano” because the echoes of horse physiognomy were so reminiscent of Ucello’s prancing horses. In the gift shop, we searched for reproductions of these two pictures, but alas, only the mainstream masterpieces were represented by the offerings there. DS is an equestrienne and she was particularly take with these two Dalis.
It seemed to me that the didactic panels for the works in this exhibition gave only cursory smatterings of generalized information, regurgitation of art history canon, and predictably familiar brief descriptions. A few people wandered around with large telephones held to their ears, listening to the canned explanations. At the sound of beeps they moved from painting to painting. We had a marvellous conversation with a couple from the north of England who had an interesting bit of information to share about a Dali painting in which a group of three men seemed to be engaged in a not very vigorous tussle. They said the men seemed to be doing Cumbrian wrestling, a form of stylized and restrained gentlemanly sport. So now “Dry Sherry” and I can Google up some interesting bits about this.
I feel thoroughly energized by this time “Dry Sherry’ and I have spent at the VAG. The whole experience was such a treat, and I am delighted that I am still able to see well enough to have made a direct face to face with some wonderful paintings. And the companionship of a knowledgeable and sensitive viewer like her was a special treat!